PIKETON, OHIO—David and Pam Mills have grown tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and okra on their secluded Appalachian property for about 18 years now. This will be the first year the retired couple doesn’t. They just can’t trust their soil anymore. Not with what’s being built barely a five-minute walk away.
Past the shed and through the gray, bare trees that grow in the backyard, bulldozers and dump trucks are busy scooping tan-colored dirt atop an overlooking hill on a brisk January afternoon. They’re constructing a 100-acre landfill for radioactive waste. The machines are there most days until the sun goes down; David, 60, hasn’t been able to escape their roaring for two years. Wearing a black-and-gray baseball cap, he drives his rusty orange tractor down the hill, against the crunch of dead leaves, to take a closer look. On a short metal fence marking where the Mills property ends, a sign reads, “U.S. PROPERTY, NO TRESPASSING,” in big, bold letters with red, white, and blue borders.
The Department of Energy (DOE) owns what sits on the other side: the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant. The DOE built the 1,200-acre facility, located just outside town of Piketon about an hour’s drive south of Columbus in southcentral Ohio, in 1954, as one of three plants it was using to enrich uranium and develop the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Now, the agency is trying to clean it up. The landfill—or “on-site waste disposal cell,” as the department calls it—would extend about 60-feet down and house 2 million tons of low-level radioactive waste comprised of soil, asbestos, concrete, and debris. It’ll be outfitted with a clay liner, a plastic cover layer, and a treatment system for any water that leaches through it. When finished, it will be one of the largest nuclear waste dumps east of the Mississippi.
Waste could begin entering it as soon as this fall.
The Mills have never taken issue with the DOE facility, but they don’t want this landfill. They’d rather see all this junk shipped off to disposal sites in the Southwest, where some low-level waste has already been sent. After all, what if the landfill leaks?
“It’s gonna contaminate everything,” David says, after he shows me how close the landfill sits to his property. “It’s just a matter of time.”
The couple is far from alone in their fears. The 2,000-strong Village of Piketon passed a resolution in August 2017 opposing the landfill. So did the local school district and the Pike County General Health District, where Piketon resides. The rural, low income, and largely white county is home to more than 28,000 people across a number of small towns and cities, some of which have passed their own resolutions against this project. Driving through neighborhoods behind Piketon’s main highway, lawn signs covered in red stating “NO RADIOACTIVE WASTE DUMP in Pike County” can be seen everywhere.
In January, the Village of Piketon approved the purchase of a $5,000 air quality monitor to track any potential contamination resulting from the landfill’s construction and the cleanup of the rest of the site. By March, Scioto Township, also in Pike County, purchased its own air quality monitor.
While Piketon’s air quality monitor should be set up within the next month, a separate analysis is already raising alarm bells. The Zahn’s Corner Middle School, which sits barely a 10-minute drive away from the plant, closed on May 13 after university researchers detected enriched uranium inside the building, and traces of neptunium appeared in readings from an air quality monitor right outside the school. While the DOE believes everything’s fine, the Pike County General Health District has been calling for the department to halt work while it investigates the matter. Townspeople worry this contamination is a direct result of recent activity at the plant.
All of this highlights deep public distrust over the nuclear facility’s cleanup plan. And after reviewing thousands of pages of documents—including independent studies, the project’s record of decision, and the remedial investigation and feasibility studies that went into writing it—to understand the risks, it’s clear the public isn’t worried for nothing.
Here’s the thing: Nothing is technically illegal about the landfill. The DOE, though the polluter, is taking the lead on cleaning up the facility, and the Ohio EPA supports its plan. Whether their decision is morally right given local opposition is another matter. But this is what often happens when a corporation or governmental entity needs to dispose of toxic waste: It gets left in an overlooked town no one’s heard of.
Piketon existed long before the Portsmouth facility did. The village was established in 1846 and has, largely, been a farming and logging community ever since, local county historian Jim Henry told Earther.
The Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant—locally known as the A-Plant (for Atomic Plant)—was the town’s first real industry. During the Cold War, the United States was in need of weapons of mass destruction, and these weapons required enriched uranium. Beginning in the early 1940s, the DOE started separating isotopes of uranium to isolate uranium-235, the one used to build nukes. Facilities like the A-Plant were tasked with doing the separation.
Before the A-Plant, residents had to leave the boundaries of Piketon if they wanted an industrial job, so they were glad to see it arrive. Those whom I spoke with made it sound like it gave the town a sense of patriotism.
What they, and everyone really, didn’t understand at the outset of the Cold War was the lasting impacts uranium enrichment could have. Sure, scientists understood radioactive material could cause cancer, but they thought that it’d take a lot of radiation, explained Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist and acting director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Nuclear Safety Project. Now, we know any exposure poses a risk.
“They knew certain things. There were a lot of things they didn’t know and a lot of things they didn’t worry about that much, again, in the drive to develop nuclear weapons and to build up the nuclear arsenal,” Lyman told Earther. “The legacy of that inattention is what we’re dealing with today.”
Once the secrecy around what these plants were doing and their potential impacts on human health began to crack in the 1980s, facilities started to shutter, Lyman said. The public was outraged, and the anti-nuclear movement was born. That’s, in part, why construction of new nuclear plants in the U.S. halted for about three decades. Portsmouth eventually succumbed to the same fate as similar weapons enrichment facilities when it shut down in 2001.
Now, more than 15 years later, the DOE is left with the task of cleaning up the more than 2 million tons of low-level radioactive waste and thousands more tons of hazardous waste the plant’s operations left behind. Completing the landfill is estimated to take another 10 to 12 years, with the entire clean-up projected to go on until 2035. Although smaller in scale, the effort draws some parallels to the clean up of Washington state’s infamous Hanford site, a plutonium-enrichment facility that left behind hundreds of contaminated facilities whose cleanup is estimated to last at least another 40 years.
The agency has built these on-site landfills before—back in 2006 in Fernald, Ohio, and in 2002 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, both of which also enriched uranium. The facility at Oak Ridge has resulted in mercury contamination in nearby waterways, as the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has noted, giving the Ohio community further pause.
The decision to house A-Plant’s low-level radioactive waste on site boiled down to money. The DOE says it will save $218 million by burying the waste on site versus shipping it to facilities in the Southwest desert, according to a record of decision released in June 2015. However, if the landfill’s construction schedule were to extend by four to five times, the cost—currently estimated at $882 million—would rise significantly. And the Government Accountability Office found earlier this year that the DOE has a history of underestimating costs and timelines.
“In terms of ‘too expensive,’ I would expect the community to push back against that,” Kathy Setian, who worked for over 20 years as a Superfund project manager for EPA Region 9, told Earther. “It’s impossible to guess the cost of maintaining a local landfill for hundreds of years into the future.”
Money aside, shipping radioactive waste off-site has other benefits. Some 24 wetlands and 38 streams sit near the landfill. To bury the waste on-site, the DOE must waive a requirement that prevents it from constructing the landfill within 200 feet of these kinds of water bodies. The department can do so because even though it’s not technically a Superfund, it’s being regulated as one, a common practice for such DOE facilities.
The DOE wouldn’t comment on why it chose this site despite the nearby streams nor would it say how that impacts environmental risk.
But the local hydrology is a key point of concern among community members. The region has a rainy climate, and it’s been seeing above-average levels of precipitation in recent years. More than anything, it’s the idea of rainfall causing the landfill’s contents to leak into the groundwater that makes people so nervous.
Elizabeth Lamerson is one of those people. The 40-year-old is a former environmental specialist in hazardous waste management with the Ohio EPA office. She was also an employee at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant during its early years of clean up, where she helped ship low-level radioactive waste out West. Her husband still works there. But in recent years, they’ve both become fierce opponents of the plan to bury the waste on site. Their home, which they had built for them and their two sons, sits within 2 miles of the plant.
In fact, Lamerson’s visitors have to cross a huge “NO TRESPASSING” sign when they turn off a highway to reach her house. Other signs shouting “Public Access Not Permitted” in red cover what were once outposts for security when the plant was still cranking out enriched uranium. There’s even an open sliding fence on the road reminding guests that the DOE could, in theory, lock it shut behind them if it wanted to.
Lamerson is soft-spoken and warm, but she speaks with authority. Since leaving her job at the plant nearly five years ago, she’s met with nearby mayors, school boards, and county commissioners, convincing them to sign resolutions opposing the facility. She’s made it her mission to inform everyone she can that Piketon’s future is at stake.
Lamerson has even purchased her own $5,000 air quality monitor to test for enriched uranium and other radioactive elements near her home. The Lamersons don’t want to move, but they are willing to do so if that air monitor picks up a dangerous reading. They don’t want their kids to get sick.
When Lamerson walked into the Chillicothe City Council Chambers some 20 miles north of Piketon on a winter day back in 2017, she was surprised to see table-size 3-D models of the landfill. Posters colored black, white, orange, and blue stretched from floor to ceiling, showing what it could look like. She was there to inform public officials of the threat the proposed landfill could pose to her family and friends and to urge them to sign a resolution against it.
Despite the fancy cut-outs put together by DOE contractor Fluor-BWXT, Chillicothe city council members passed a resolution that day against the waste cell. And it wouldn’t be the last: at least 11 counties, townships, city councils, and school boards in southcentral Ohio have come out against the project. Unfortunately, the plan was set by the time these resolutions passed.
Here’s the thing: Many residents didn’t even know about the landfill until after the DOE had already decided on it. The public had between November 2014 and March 2015 to comment on the project. The department published its record of decision in favor of the landfill on June 30, 2015. Then, the backlash hit.
The plan does have its supporters. The DOE received 507 comments from residents, elected officials, and technical experts, and most were in favor of the landfill because they believed it was “the safe option,” as one business manager said, or because they believed it’d help spur local job creation. Many comments voiced that keeping the waste on site seemed like the only way to clean up the site.
The Pike County Board of Commissioners also supports it. Its members believe that those concerned are in the minority, and they also see the landfill as the only real way to clean the facility up. Moreover, they trust the DOE and the Ohio EPA to do their jobs.
“Nobody wants a waste cell, but it’s the most practical thing to move forward,” said Commissioner Blaine Beekman during a county commissioner’s meeting in Piketon that Earther attended. Commissioner Tony Montgomery agreed, saying that while “we wouldn’t want another [...] regular trash dump in the county again if given the choice,” he sees no other option.
The newest commissioner, Jerry Miller, seems to feel differently. He was adamantly opposed to the landfill during his campaign. He’s still, recently, been posting Facebook statuses that carry more criticism of the cell and DOE than his colleagues. He didn’t return Earther’s request for comment, though. Neither did the DOE when asked to describe the steps it took to receive public input for its decision.
Regardless of where they stand on the project, everyone says they want what’s best for Piketon. But a lot of community members worry that the town will continue to be impoverished and devoid of business opportunities so long as it’s home to the landfill. Who’s going to want to invest in a place that’s a nuclear dumpsite?
And Piketon officials don’t trust the DOE at all. Neither does the plant’s former chief scientist, David Manuta, who worked there for nearly 11 years and has seen firsthand the operations that went on.
“DOE has a history in this community of not listening,” Manuta told Earther. “DOE is not a popular government agency in this community.”
Piketon’s distrust runs so deep that Mayor Billy Spencer hired an independent contractor, the Ferguson Group, in November 2016 to review the department’s record of decision on the landfill. And it found that the record of decision contained some errors.
The Ferguson Group used the same data DOE collected to support its final decision. The contractor took a close look at the bedrock and water table at the proposed landfill site, which can help indicate the threat of potential contamination should the cell’s 3-foot-thick clay layer liner and water treatment system fail. It found that, by the DOE’s own accounting, the water table was fewer than 50 feet from the landfill in some sections—the minimum required distance under federal regulations. Streams were flowing near the proposed site. The bedrock was full of fractures.
Fractures refer to any cracks in the bedrock that could allow water (and any contaminants in that water) to travel into groundwater. An ideal location for such a site would have few to no fractures to prevent this from happening.
That’s exactly how the DOE portrayed the landfill in its record of decision. After taking thousands of core samples throughout four study areas, the DOE selected its current site. It asserts that the site’s geology is the safest among the options examined because it has “competent unfractured bedrock formations.” It wrote, “At depths greater than 20 ft, the bedrock was found to be intact with no fractures or cracks.”
But, well, this isn’t true—not even by the DOE’s data. As the Ferguson Group points out in its analysis, fractures deeper than 20 feet exist throughout the entirety of where the landfill will be built, with some reaching as deep as 70 feet.
“This is the craziness of it all. They go out there and investigate this what we call ‘ideal site,’ right?” Karl Kalbacher, the Ferguson Group consultant Piketon hired for this analysis, told me. “There’s groundwater just oozing out of the ground, which tells you there’s a very shallow water table. They document that there are streams that are flowing through the proposed site area.”
In a letter obtained by Earther, former Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler told the Village of Piketon in 2017 that these fractures resulted from drilling the core samples, not from the geology. But the EPA itself could not confirm this interpretation in its assessment of the core photographs, per the letter. The letter also notes that the EPA “concluded that there appears to be no evidence that a hydraulic connection exists [between the landfill site and the aquifer], but identified limitations in the data that do not make this conclusion definitive.”
An independent geologist who requested anonymity concurred that it was difficult to determine whether the fractures were naturally occurring or an artifact of drilling based on the boring logs. He agreed that there are “most certainly fractures,” but added that it would be hard to say they are definitively associated with a higher risk of contamination and that the clay above the rock could help prevent it.
When reached for comment on the fractures and discrepancies, Heidi Griesmer, Deputy Director for Communication for the Ohio EPA reiterated that the agency concurred with, and continues to support, the DOE’s record of decision “based on a thorough review of all the hydrogeologic data collected during the RI/FS [the initial analysis], including but not limited to: core samples, boring logs, pump tests and geophysical tests.”
“Ohio EPA also participated in various meetings and site inspections to field verify the data,” Griesmer continued. “Ultimately, Ohio EPA determined that the proposed site meets the State of Ohio siting criteria for a waste disposal landfill” with the exception of its proximity to streams, for which the project was granted a state exemption.
The DOE provided no further comment on the matter.
The fact that bedrock fractures exist at depths where the landfill is being excavated doesn’t automatically make this location dangerous. The Ohio EPA, which is the lead regulator for the facility’s hazardous waste permit, clearly doesn’t think it’s a problem. But Kalbacher asserts that the possibility the DOE could be giving false information to the public is dangerous. The mayor of Piketon agrees.
“They know that most people aren’t going to read [these documents],” he told Earther. “And the people that do read it, they’re counting on them not understanding.”
To opponents of the landfill, all these fractures and discrepancies raise concerns about the DOE’s commitment to keeping the region contaminant-free. So does the recent independent analysis from Northern Arizona University that prompted the closure of Piketon’s Zahn’s Corner Middle School this week. That analysis found that the Scioto River and village creeks, as well as dust and soils from the school and private homes, are currently contaminated with enriched uranium, neptunium, and plutonium—all radioactive carcinogens. While the analysis did not measure concentrations, it found that much of this contamination could, indeed, be traced back to the plant.
In a statement emailed to Earther, the DOE said those concentrations are very low. “Routine air samples in the area of DOE’s Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon revealed trace amounts of two radiological isotopes that were more than one thousand to ten thousand times below the established threshold of public health concern,” the statement reads. “DOE treats all detections seriously–even those that are at such low levels.”
“The Department of Energy is committed to the safety, health and protection of our workforce, the general public and the environment at all our sites,” the statement went on. “Accordingly, we are working together with the local officials and stakeholders to engage an independent third party to perform an additional analysis of the air and ground readings to properly assess the situation. We are confident that those findings will allay any cause for further concern.”
Regardless of whether the DOE is concerned, the evidence suggests demolition of the plant and construction of the landfill may already be spreading some contaminants via the air. Add in the threat of the landfill impacting groundwater, and opponents see several additional health risks in a regional already overburdened by cancer.
Pike County’s cancer rate of 487.9 per 100,000 incidences is higher than the state average of 459.8 per 100,000 incidences. In fact, all the counties surrounding Portsmouth—Vinton, Ross, Highland, Adams, Scioto—have some of the highest rates in the state.
Jeanie Williams, a 63-year-old who’s lived in a spacious trailer home since 1972 right alongside the plant—not far from where the Mills live—knows that statistic all too personally. Cancer took Williams’ brother in 1999. Her dad worked at the plant and died of lung disease about 10 years ago. Her stepfather worked there and died last year from cancer. Her daughter is battling colon cancer.
Williams herself was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer that takes over the bone marrow, in 2014. She can’t be sure what caused it but fears it has to do with where she lives. It’s why she doesn’t enjoy sitting on the porch swing on her lovely deck anymore.
“Every time I go to take a deep breath, I don’t know if I’m doing more damage,” she said, as her fireplace roared, keeping her warm.
High levels of cancer in Piketon could be due to any number of things, said Michael Sarap, the chair for the state’s Commission on Cancer, including high smoking rates—the poorest counties in Ohio see a quarter of their constituents smoking—and lack of healthcare access. However, exposure to radioactive material could be responsible for some of the cancer, too, Sarap said.
“The difficulty is in proving that exposure specifically caused a cancer in a specific individual especially when the population is reporting a number of different types of cancer,” he wrote in an email to Earther.
The state health department isn’t aware of any community-wide surveys or studies conducted to determine the role the A-Plant may or may not play in the region’s cancer rates. Conducting such a study would fall under the jurisdiction of the local health departments, said Ohio Health Department spokesperson J.C. Benton in an email to Earther. Since one was never done, all people can do is wonder.
“A study focusing on cancers that can be attributed to radiation exposure or exposure to transuranics for those who live within a certain distance from the site should be performed,” said Pike County Health Commissioner Matt Brewster, in an email to Earther. “I have heard numerous times from various doctors that it isn’t necessarily the incidence rate that has them concerned, but it is the type of cancer they are seeing from people in our area that is very alarming.”
For those who’ve worked at a DOE facility handling radioactive material, like Williams’ father and stepfather, the link is far more clear cut. In fact, sickness was so common in all DOE facilities—not only those enriching uranium—across the country that the Department of Labor created the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program in 2001 to help provide financial compensation for it. This program has paid out more than $900 million to Portsmouth employees alone. More than 5,000 Portsmouth employees or their families have received up to $250,000 (not including medical expenses) each to make up for the bills and grief that come with a major illness.
But people like Williams don’t qualify for such programs. She never worked there.
Pam Mills did work there, but it wasn’t she who got sick; her 9-year-old nephew did. She lost him to bone cancer more than 10 years ago. She and her husband lost a dog to cancer, too. The couple wonders if the little creek that runs behind their home along the facility could’ve carried any toxic contaminants into their family’s lives. Both their pet and beloved nephew used to play there. They may never know: The DOE only began sharing annual environment assessments in 2010.
Elizabeth Lamerson doesn’t know if she and her neighbors will succeed in stopping the DOE from dumping radioactive waste in their backyards. The ground has already been excavated. The department is moving quickly to complete the landfill’s construction.
No one’s decided to take legal action, but that feels like the only way to stop the DOE at this point. Kalbacher, at least, believes the Village of Piketon has grounds to sue because the DOE waived that federal environmental law that would’ve put a safe distance between the landfill and nearby streams, an ability typically reserved for Superfunds.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for any state or federal environmental law or regulation to be waived when it comes to the citing of a low-level nuclear and hazardous waste landfill,” Kalbacher told Earther. “There is another answer to this problem, and it is not what they are proposing.”
He’s recommended Mayor Spencer file a citizen’s lawsuit related to the federal Superfund law the DOE is using. Litigation takes money, though, and for a small town like Piketon, taking on the DOE would be a serious investment.
“Honestly, Piketon versus United States government?” Spencer said. “How much money do I have to spend compared to how much money will they spend?”
For now, many residents of Piketon feel stuck. The situation has cast a cloud over the community, and the eeriness is tough to shake off as I leave the Lamersons’ home.
To reach the main highway I take Perimeter Road, the single-lane two-way street that wraps around the plant. Though the woods around the quarantined, fenced-off facility are pitch black, fluorescent lights shine on every corner. Despite being the lone driver on the road, I almost feel like I’m being watched—as if I’m doing something criminal by simply driving so close to the plant—as I scurry to get away.
That’s an option I, as a visitor, have: to leave. But it’s not so simple for folks who live here. Some don’t have the money. Even for those that do, turning your back on your home is tough. And there’s always hope that things will change; that the specter of pollution will go away and that the economy will finally flourish.
David and Pam Mills just want to go back to the summer days when they could barbecue on the grill out back and invite friends over. They’ve lost their peace of mind. Pam is willing to move and leave it all behind, but David hesitates. He sits at his wobbly kitchen table and glances out the window into the yard, where the sounds of construction vehicles and dirt being excavated are inescapable.
Will this mess end when the last of the waste is buried and the machines fall silent? Or will that only be the beginning?